Friday, May 16, 2008

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and My Year Inside Radical Islam - Part 3

All of the Qur'an is guidance. Nonetheless, not all of the guidance is necessarily intended for everyone.

For example, Alaf Lam Meen is guidance. Ha Meem is guidance. Ta Ha is guidance. Ya Seen is guidance. Yet, such guidance does not necessarily apply to anyone except those for whom God intended it.

People have made an assumption that injunctions in the Qur'an dealing with, say, punishment are incumbent for all peoples, circumstances, societies, and historical times, but these injunctions concerning punishment may not have been intended to apply to everyone any more than the series of Arabic letters at the beginning of certain surahs are necessarily intended for everyone. Rather, in each case, the guidance may be intended only for certain historical and social circumstances.

This distinction may be especially important when it comes to differentiating between the private sphere and the public sphere. Although there often is a public context in which the basic pillars and beliefs of Islam are embraced, the fact of the matter is that all of these pillars and beliefs are largely a matter of individual observance and responsibility.

This is also the case with respect to those aspects of character development that extend beyond the basic pillars and beliefs. One may seek to practice love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness, tolerance, patience, and so on in relation to other people, but the development of such traits is a function of an individual's solitary struggle. One may observe the five daily prayers with other people, but each individual carries the responsibility of paying attention during prayers and applying as much of her or his spiritual capacity to the observance of prayers as one is individually able to do – nobody else can do this for a person.

Shari'ah is a matter of individual aspiration and not of public imposition. The Prophet is reported to have said: “I have been given all the Names and have been sent to perfect good character.” He did not say that he has been sent to establish a good system of jurisprudence or corporal punishment.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is also reported to have said:

“Muslims are brothers and sisters in Deen, and they must not oppress one another, nor abandon assisting each other, nor hold one another in contempt. The seat of righteousness is the heart. Therefore, that heart which is righteous does not hold a Muslim in contempt.” Yet, many of those with a fundamentalist inclination do seek to oppress others through the exercise of public power, and they do tend to harbour contempt for anyone who does not act or believe as such fundamentalists believe should be the case.

Moreover, the foregoing hadith indicates that the seat of righteousness is the heart. The hadith says nothing about the seat of righteousness being in government or the public sphere of power or a particular system of imposed punishment.

Through the Qur'an, Allah guided the people in the time of the Prophet in a way that they could understand and in a manner which fit in with their life styles, social conventions, history, ways of doing things, and sensibilities. In other words, during the time of the Prophet and under certain circumstances best understood by the Prophet, the process of beheading a person, or amputating a limb, or flogging an individual, or stoning a person were all expressions of following a portion of the guidance which had been given to the Prophet by God in order to establish order and security in a Arabian society that was used to dealing with certain aspects of life through the law of retribution and which is why God proscribed that sort of law for such a people so they would understand.

Nonetheless, through the Qur'an, God also provided guidance for people who would live in subsequent times which were different in many ways from those which existed during the life of the Prophet. Furthermore, these other dimensions of guidance were expressed in a manner that could be understood by, and which fit in with, the life-style, conventions, history, practices, and sensibilities of the people who would live in those later times.

This does not mean that people of subsequent generations were free to do whatever they liked. However, part of the beauty, generosity, and depth of the Qur'an is that it is filled with principles of guidance which are appropriate for all manner of circumstances and conditions, and, as such, the Qur'an has degrees of freedom contained within which are capable of assisting individuals in a variety of circumstances and situations – even if there are people today, unfortunately, who are unwilling to acknowledge these other dimensions of Quranic guidance.

Shari'ah has always remained what it is – the personal, private process of struggling to purify oneself, develop constructive character traits, realize spiritual capacity, and gain insight into the nature of one's essential relationship with God. The Qur'an says: “I have not created human beings nor jinn except that they may worship Me [that is, Divinity].” (Qur'an 51:56-57), and shari'ah, when properly pursued, is the key, God willing, to fulfilling the purpose for which human beings and jinn have been created – that is, worship or ibadat.

Is there a need for maintaining a safe and stable environment so that people may be free to pursue the real meaning of shari'ah in their own individual way? Yes, there is, but there also are alternative Quranic means of establishing and securing such an environment without necessarily having to resort to executions, amputations, floggings, stonings, oppressions, and so on. Moreover, we live in times when the latter sort of approach to establishing a public space that is conducive to spiritual pursuits is no longer appropriate, constructive, practical, or capable of encouraging spirituality.

Furthermore, all of the foregoing can be said without, for a moment, implying that what took place in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was in any way immoral, cruel, incorrect, uncivilized, or barbaric. God knew the people who lived in the time of the Prophet better than we do, and Divinity proscribed for those people what was necessary to help them create -- in their social, economic, historical, and spiritual circumstances -- a safe, secure, stable public sphere which could assist such individuals to begin to make the transition from what had been in pre-Islamic times to what might be through the degrees of freedom contained in the Divine guidance of the Qur'an.

In fact, the inclination of the Prophet was to discourage people coming to him and making their sins and transgressions public. The Prophet encouraged people to seek repentance from God directly rather than having things mediated through public procedures.

Nevertheless, if people insisted on confessing their sins to the Prophet or insisted on making a public issue of such matters, then, the Prophet was obligated to settle those matters in accordance with his duties as a Prophet of God and in accordance with the specific guidance given by Divinity for maintaining social order in those times. However, given that the Prophet is no longer physically present among us, there really is no one who currently exists who has the spiritual authority [despite the fact that many try to arrogate to themselves such authority] to carry out the same function as was performed by the Prophet in those earlier days, nor is there anyone currently available in the public sphere who has the depth of wisdom to verify that the specific rules contained in the Qur'an concerning, say, forms of punishment, are applicable to anyone beyond that portion of the community of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that existed more than 1400 years ago.

In the days of the Prophet, when corporal forms of punishment came into play – and such was not the case all that frequently – those forms of punishment were understood as a way of having one's spiritual slate wiped clean with respect to what one would be held responsible for in the life to come. Today, those same forms of punishment have been stripped clean of what had been – at one time – their spiritual function and, instead, are frequently used as tools of oppression to control people and forcibly impose some invented theology upon a population which takes issue with the spiritual corruption, economic inequities, and social injustices being perpetrated by such governments as they try to hide behind the ruse of merely wishing to establish shari'ah as the law of the land, when, in point of fact, shari'ah was never intended to be a law which people were compelled to obey and has always been the right way for an individual to seek and realize God's purpose for that individual.

Earlier, the etymology of shari'ah had been noted as a path which leads one to water. The nature of this water entails the sort of thirst-quenching experience which occurs when, God willing, an individual realizes her or his unique spiritual capacity and essential identity. This is the sort of water to which shari'ah leads a person, and this is why the Qur'an indicates that in such matters there is no compulsion (Qur'an 2:256), and this is why people make a mistake when they treat shari'ah as something which can be imposed on others.

On page 53-54 of Daveed Gartenstein-Ross's book My Year Inside Radical Islam, the author writes:

“I had known from the first time I encountered Ashland's Muslims and saw al-Husein debate with Sheikh Hassan that there was a name for the kind of Islam practised by the community's leaders: Wahhabism. The Wahhabis are a Sunni sect founded by Muhammad ibn-Abdul Wahhab, an eighteenth-century theologian who lived in what is now Saudi Arabia. Abdul Wahhab was obsessed with returning Islam to the puritanical norms that he thought were practised in Prophet Muhammad's time. He had a severe and strict interpretation of the faith.

“In accord with Abdul Wahhab's teachings, the Wahhabis have an absolutist vision for Islam that holds that the Qur'an and Prophet Muhammad's example (the Sunnah) are the only permissible guides for the laws of the state and the conduct of an individual. They resent Muslims whose norms differ from theirs … the Sufis are also particularly despised. The Sufis … tend to be more free-form in interpreting the Qur'an.”

Starting with the last sentence first, the fact of the matter is that interpretation of the Qur'an – whether by Sufis or others – is not a part of shari'ah. In Surah 3, verse 7, one finds:

“He [that is, God] it is Who hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture wherein are clear revelations -- They are the substance of the Book--and others (which are) allegorical. But those in whose hearts is doubt pursue, forsooth, that which is allegorical seeking (to cause) dissension by seeking to explain it. None knoweth its explanation save Allah. And those who are of sound instruction say: We believe therein; the whole is from our Lord; but only men of understanding really heed.”

Moreover, in another part of the Qur'an, Allah provides the following guidance:

“He granteth wisdom to whom He pleaseth; and he to whom wisdom is granted receiveth indeed a benefit overflowing; but none will grasp the message but men of understanding.” (2:269)

Interpretation is not an expression of wisdom which God grants but is the antithesis of such wisdom. Interpretations are projected onto Divine guidance, whereas wisdom concerning that guidance is a gift of God.

Sufis don't have a more free-form way of interpreting the Qur'an. Rather, they try to refrain from interpreting the Qur'an and seek, instead, to struggle to be in a spiritual condition which, if God wishes, such an individual will receive wisdom from God concerning those Quranic verses which are not clear and straightforward.

Interpretations are invented explanations which are a function of ignorance and presumption. Wisdom is a received understanding which has been granted by God and is a function of, among other features, Divine grace/barakah and an individual's taqwa or God-consciousness.

According to the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam – and as previously noted –“Abdul Wahhab was obsessed with returning Islam to the puritanical norms that he thought were practised in Prophet Muhammad's time. He had a severe and strict interpretation of the faith.”

However, what was practised by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was not some form of puritanical doctrine but, rather, a way, or deen, or tariqa, or shari'ah, or sirat-ul-mustaqueen which helped individuals learn, God willing, how to become a person of understanding and wisdom concerning the nature and purpose of Quranic guidance. In contrast to what Abdul-Wahhab and others of fundamentalist leanings believe, this way of Allah was not meant to be imposed on anyone and, consequently, it could not become the law through which the state governed people.

As noted previously, the function of the state is different from the function of shari'ah. Sharia'ah is intended to govern the realm of private spiritual aspiration according to one's capacity as well as in accordance with Divinely granted understanding. The state is intended to create the sort of public space within which people would be able to freely and safely pursue shari'ah according to their understanding of things as long as that understanding did not spill over into compelling others to live in accordance with such a perspective.

The puritanical system to which Abdul-Wahhab wished to return people was a figment of his imagination. The puritanical system which he invented was the result of a revisionist history which Abdul-Wahhab constructed concerning the nature of Divine revelation and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

The severe and strict interpretation of faith which was held and promulgated by Abdul Wahhab was a projection of his own spiritual pathology onto both the Qur'an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The system envisioned by Abdul Wahhab was not a process of returning Islam to its roots but a failure to understand the nature of those roots altogether and as such laid the foundations for a system of theological oppression which has, like a virulent pathogen, spread to many parts of the world.

The foregoing comments actually lead to an observation concerning the title of the book by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. More specifically, My Year Inside Radical Islam, is something of a misnomer.

If a person spent a year with a group which counterfeited money and, then, wrote a book about his or her experiences during that period calling the memoir: My Year Inside the Federal Treasury, the people who read the book might object because they clearly understand that the counterfeiting outfit has nothing to do with the Federal Treasury Department except in relation to the counterfeiting group's attempt to pass off its product as a legitimate form of legal, monetary tender.

However, a similar sort of objection can be made with respect to the experiences of Mr. Gartenstein-Ross. He didn't really spend a year inside of radical Islam. Rather, he spent a year with a group of radical spiritual counterfeiters who did their best to try to convince Mr. Gartenstein-Ross that their product was the equivalent of Islam, which it wasn't.

To put forth such an observation concerning the problem with the title of Mr. Gartenstein-Ross' book doesn't undermine the importance of much of what the author has to say about the group in question, for, I would agree with many aspects of his critical commentary concerning the teachings of that group which are recounted in his book. I merely wish to place those critical observations in a proper context by saying that although the group in question may have been radical, and although that same group parasitically sought to usurp the name Islam and, in the process, attempted to create the impression that its radical philosophy was part and parcel of Islam, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross actually spent time inside a group of counterfeiters and not inside an Islamic group.

On page 71 of his book, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross writes:

“When I was a campus activist at Wake Forest, I was always eager to speak against injustice, and often considered myself courageous when I did. But my approach to Al-Haramain [i.e., the Muslim group in Ashland, Oregon] was the opposite. I recognized that disagreeing with prevailing religious sentiments could stigmatize me. My approach, starting with my first week on the job, was to avoid making waves, to try to understand where the others were coming from, and to emphasize our religious commonality rather than argue over differences.”

Not wishing to create controversies or wanting to emphasize commonalities rather than argue about differences or trying to understand someone else's perspective are all important and commendable intentions. Nonetheless, I believe that the search for truth as well as Mr. Gartenstein-Ross's personal situation would have been better served if he had stuck with his tendency to speak out against injustice and give voice to the problems he saw rather than, due to a fear of being stigmatized, remain silent.

In a sense, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross became his own worst enemy with respect to being pulled into the spiritual quagmire represented by the Ashland group because, for a time, he seemed to have suspended the very tools with which God had equipped him – namely, an inherent dislike of injustice as well as a critical capacity for detecting when things don't make sense. In short, for a time, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross ceded his intellectual and moral authority to the group or leaders of the group in Ashland, when he would have been much better off if he listened to the counsel of his own heart … which in many cases -- at least with respect to the things about which he wrote in his book -- was a better source of understanding concerning the nature of Islam than anything he was hearing from the Muslim group with which he was associating.

I say the foregoing not as someone who seeks to stand in judgment of Mr. Gartenstein-Ross but as someone who, so to speak, has been there and done that. There have been times in my own life when I should have listened to the counsel of my own heart but, instead, gave preference to the views and ideas of someone else out of a desire to not stir up controversy or disturb the peace and, in the process, ceded to someone else the very intellectual and moral authority which God had given me responsibility for the exercise thereof.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said that one should:

“Seek the guidance of your heart (istaftii qalbaka: ask for the fatwa), whatever opinion others may give.”

To be sure, there are some dangers associated with such counsel because one can easily mistake the musings of one's own ego or nafs for the guidance of one's heart. However, if one is sincere in seeking the truth, then, if God wishes, Divinity will help move the heart in the correct spiritual direction.

The question which arises here, of course, is how does one know one is being sincere? In relation to this issue, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:

“All people are doomed to perish except those of action, and all people of action will perish except for the sincere, and the sincere are at great risk.”

Why are the sincere at such risk? Because, among other things, there are many who are seeking to sway the sincere from the counsel of their heart – the very counsel to which the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him) in the previously noted hadith is encouraging such sincere ones to listen to.

When one does not listen to the counsel or fatwa of one's heart, the vacuum which is created thereby becomes filled with the musings of whoever happens to be present and who is prepared, legitimately or illegitimately, to exploit another person's abdication of her or his spiritual responsibilities with respect to his or her own heart.

This is what happened to Mr. Gartenstein-Ross when he became inclined to remain silent amidst the radicalized propaganda, biases, and prejudices of the Ashland group. Through his own decision to remain relatively silent concerning the problems he encountered within the group, he unintentionally opened himself up to the malignant forces which would begin to work on him through the theological machinations of the Wahhabi-influenced group with which the author had, for a time, chosen to associate in Ashland, Oregon.

One of the first things the group tried to do was undermine Mr. Gartenstein-Ross' God-given right to try to ascertain, for himself, the truth with respect to an array of issues. For instance, at one point in his book, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross describes how, when working in the office of the Ashland group, he wrote an e-mail in response to a university student who was inquiring about the practice of infibulation, a process of genital mutilation which is forced upon women within various Muslim communities in different parts of the world.

Very reasonably, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross wrote to the student and explained that one had to distinguish between the teachings of Islam and cultural practices which had nothing to do with such teachings but, unfortunately, had been conflated with those teachings by people of mischief and those with vested interests. The author clearly, and correctly, indicated to the student that the practice of infibulation has nothing to do with Islam.

One of the consequences which ensued from the e-mail was that the other members of the Ashland group were very upset with Mr. Gartenstein-Ross for having written such an e-mail. The author was told that he did not have the right to issue a fatwa, and there were numerous scholars in Saudi Arabia who were far more qualified than was Mr. Gartenstein-Ross and who were prepared to answer such complex questions of Islamic law.

Despite all too many facets of the Muslim community operating for some 1100-1200 years under the contrary delusion (since the rise of various schools of jurisprudence within the Muslim community), there is no such thing as Islamic law. While there are legal systems which have been generated by Muslims, and while, sometimes, these legal systems do seek to incorporate this or that understanding concerning what certain people believe Islam to be about, the result is not Islamic law but, rather, Muslim law.

A whole cacophony of religious scholars, imams, qazis, muftis, and theologians have arrogated to themselves the right to make pronouncements – called fatwas -- which they believe to be binding on others. They have developed arcane, obscure, irrelevant, and deeply flawed methodologies for generating torturous explanations that attempt to justify such practices as female mutilation, or which seek to justify: why women should be completely covered, or why women should be deprived of the rights which the Qur'an clearly gives them, or why men should be beaten if they don't grow a beard, or why a women who is raped should be executed for fornication, or why honor killings are okay, or why not belonging to a given madhhab or school of jurisprudence is a heinous crime and renders one an unbeliever, and other similar iniquities.

The practice of infibulation or female mutilation is not a matter of complex Islamic law. It is a matter of a complex pathology.

There is nothing of a reliable nature in the Qur'an to support such a practice. There is nothing of a reliable nature in the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad to support such a practice.

However, the fundamentalist mind-set seeks to induce one to believe that life is real only when one submits to the beliefs and teachings of certain acceptable – to the fundamentalists -- religious scholar. According to that mind-set, if one doesn't operate out of a given madhab's book of fiqh or application of law based on such a school's interpretation of the Qur'an, Hadith, and subsequent legal commentary, then, one is leading an invalid, haramic life.

For such a mind-set, validity is not a matter of whether a given understanding can be shown to conform to the guidance of the Qur'an. Rather, validity is purely a function of whether a given understanding conforms to a certain theological paradigm.

If one conforms, then, one is a brother or sister. If one dissents, then, one is likely to lose one's family affiliation and become branded as a kafir or unbeliever.

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